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Chorus of complaints greet Xayaburi plans

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Construction equipment is used at the proposed building site of a controversial dam in Xayaburi province, Laos, in June 2012. Photograph: International Rivers/Phnom Penh Post

The US yesterday criticised Laos for announcing it will begin building the 1,285-megawatt Xayaburi dam on the Mekong River today without studying its potential effects on Cambodia and Vietnam.

A spokesperson from the US State Department in Washington said the government was concerned construction of the $3.8 billion dam was proceeding before impact studies had been completed.

“The extent and severity of impacts from the Xayaburi dam on an ecosystem that provides food security and livelihoods for millions are still unknown,” the spokesperson said.

US-based environmental group International Rivers said yesterday that the international community should not let Laos build the dam without addressing MRC member states’ concerns about the effects on fish stocks and sediment flow.

“We are calling on donor governments and the governments of Thailand, Vietnam and Cambodia to take a formal stand against Laos.”

Pianporn Deetes, IR’s Thailand campaign co-ordinator, said Thailand especially needed to act.

“As Thai companies serve as the project’s developers [and]  financers, and the Thai government will purchase the bulk of the Xayaburi dam’s electricity, Thailand has the responsibility to call for a stop to construction immediately and cancel its power purchase agreement until there is regional agreement to build the dam,” she said.

Thailand, however, was doing the opposite yesterday.

“The Thai government is not opposed to the project,” said Foreign Minister Surapong Tovichachaikul. “The Lao government has already conducted studies that show there would be no impact on the environment and fisheries.”

Cambodia, meanwhile, did not rush to condemn the announcement of the dam.

A statement from the Council of Ministers released yesterday says that Lao president Choummaly Sayasone told Prime Minister Hun Sen during a Sunday meeting that Laos had studied the impacts, and that the premier supported construction in principle provided there was clear evidence that it followed MRC guidelines and didn’t negatively affect Cambodia or the river.

Shares in Ch. Karnchang, the Thai firm constructing Xayaburi, surged yesterday by 2.7 per cent to their highest price in 21 months. But while shareholders rejoiced, the spirits of villagers along the Mekong in Kratie province were low.

Chhim Sokea, chief of Thmar Kre Lue fishing community in Chitra Borei district, said he feared for families on the banks of the river who relied on the river’s fish.

 “I was terribly worried when I heard that the Lao government approved the Xayaburi dam,” he said.

“I think that when the dam is completely built, it will block water flow downstream and affect fish numbers. For us, no water means no life.”

Deetes, from IR, criticised the MRC for failing to speak out against Laos’s decision.

“When the [MRC] stays quiet and tolerates one country risking the sustainability of the Mekong River and all future transboundary co-operation, something is seriously wrong,” she said.

Surasak Glahan, communications officer for the MRC Secretariat in Laos, said he was still seeking confirmation on whether Laos’ decision on Xayaburi was final.

“A final decision about the project rests with the country proposing it,” he said.

To contact the reporter on this story: Shane Worrell at shane.worrell@phnompenhpost.com and Khouth Sophak Chakrya at sophakchakrya.khouth@phnompenhpost.com
With assistance from Kim Yuthana, Chhay Channyda, Bangkok Post and Reuters

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